Enemy: Toronto Raptors
3SOB Prediction: 47-35
What’s the Story with Canada’s Team?
While the rest of the Eastern Conference was busy wheeling and dealing this summer, the team in the Great White North made the decision to maintain the status quo following the midseason trade that sent our old friend, Rudy Gay, out to the West Coast. GM Masai Ujiri didn’t make any seismic changes, choosing to re-sign Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson, and Greivis Vasquez, while also signing Grizznation favorite James Johnson to a tw0-year deal. (Seriously, how many former Grizzlies do they have in Toronto now?)
As they pointed out this week on Raptors Republic, Toronto might not have overhauled their roster, yet they have one thing going for them that virtually no other playoff contender can claim: continuity. The Memphis Grizzlies can certainly attest to the importance of that idea, having gone through a number of changes while still maintaining a level of “sameness” with their core group of players. And given that this Raptors’ squad went a conference-best 42-24 following the aforementioned Rudy Gay trade, why should they look to re-invent the wheel?
Ujiri is one of the most intelligent and insightful front office guys in all of sports. Similar to Memphis, it is difficult to lure free agents to Toronto, so he has carefully crafted a gameplan that will allow him to build a high-level playoff roster north of the border that features a tough-as-nails point guard in Lowry and a budding star in DeMar DeRozan. How were they acquired? A trade and the draft, respectively. Sound familiar, Grizz fans? The notable acquisition that the Raptors made this summer was to trade John Salmons (and his waivable contract) to the Atlanta Hawks for combo guard, Lou Williams. Trades and the draft — that’s how small market (or less-desirable market) teams have to build. (Unless you happen to be the hometown team of the world’s best player…)
Their salary cap numbers are solid with Amir Johnson the only key piece who isn’t signed beyond this season. The disappointing Landry Fields expires after this year, as is veteran big man Chuck Hayes. They only have $47 million committed next year, giving them options galore for Ujiri to procure the additional piece necessary for them to take the next step forward.
What are they cooking with?
DeMar DeRozan is the guy that makes the SportsCenter highlights and is recognized by many as a potential superstar on the rise. His amazing athleticism and thunderous dunks are on display nearly every night he laces them up. However, it was Kyle Lowry who was the engine for this squad last season, posting career shooting numbers that are borne out by his Nylon Calculus shot chart:
While some might think that Lowry was overpaid by Toronto this offseason, his production says his contract is justified. If you actually watched the Raptors play, you would know that he was the catalyst for their winning ways. In wins, his assists, rebounds, free throws, steals, and shooting percentages are up, while fouls are down. When he plays well, the team wins. When he is a dynamic playmaker who can both score and set up teammates, they win a lot.
Terrence Ross is a great athlete who is a solid perimeter threat and continually improving defender. Rounding out the backcourt rotation is Greivis Vasquez, who remains much the same player most Grizz fans will remember from his time in Memphis, although he has improved his perimeter shooting.
In the frontcourt, the Raptors rely on a combination of talented youth and savvy veterans. Amir Johnson (still only 27 years old) and Jonas Valanciunas are the starters, providing enough length and athleticism to match up with nearly every team they’ll face. JV has proven to be solid in the paint, and rumors of him working with Hakeem Olajuwon this offseason should pay dividends in expanding his game on both ends of the court. Bringing back Patterson along with one more season from Hayes provides quality depth. Rookie Lucas Noguiera could see some playing time later in the year, as well.
The additions of James Johnson and Lou Williams should provide some versatility to the bench that Dwayne Casey will need to utilize in order to keep Lowry and DeRozan from playing so many minutes this year.
I think that the Raptors are poised to win the Atlantic Division and secure a Top 4 seed this season. How far they are able to go in the postseason will likely be a result of how much continued growth we see from DeRozan, as well as what kinds of changes Dwayne Casey is able to make to a defense that started strong, but slipped late in the season. They might not have enough firepower to challenge Chicago or Cleveland, but they’re certainly no longer a punchline either.
How do the good guys stack up?
The Vibe Behind Enemy Lines
To gauge how our friends up north are feeling about the upcoming matchups between their Raptors and our Grizz, we’ve enlisted the help of William Lou, who writes for Raptors Republic.
William Lou: The Raptors and Grizzlies will square off twice next season, once on Nov. 19 (in Toronto) and again on Jan. 21 (in Memphis). As far as I know — which isn’t very much — there is no bitter rivalry between the two teams, save for James Johnson’s offseason migration from Memphis to Toronto. The Raptors did take both contests last season, winning both contests by double digits (13, 16 respectively). Toronto won the first match-up in Memphis on the backs of a well-balanced team effort, as my colleague Andrew Thompson detailed in his recap. The Raptors made a point to run on defensive stops, keyed by Kyle Lowry, who was well underway to a breakout 2013-14 campaign. Toronto took the second game by playing through Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 23 points on 11-of-15 shooting (read RR editor Zarar Siddiqi‘s recap here).
For the most part, the two teams play a similar style, that being a grind-it-out defense-first mentality. The Raptors have more offensive weapons, including a wing-scorer in DeMar DeRozan who mirrors former Grizzly (and Raptor) Rudy Gay in many respects, except that DeMar is occasionally willing to pass and gets to the line at an absurd rate. The Grizzlies, however, have a much bigger paint presence with the duo of Gasol and Zach Randolph, which also counts on both ends of the floor, especially defensively.
The Vibe at 3 Shades of Blue
Jonathan May: Oh, Toronto. You interesting fringe contender in the East (with an unusual number of former Grizzlies who like to try to punish their former team). You’re miles behind those guys in Cleveland (and Chicago), but a three seed in the East could be yours if you stay healthy and out of your own way. Your GM, Masai Ujiri (aka “Midas”, aka “He who cannot be named aloud”), has put together an intriguing group of players, and turned some bad assets into good ones in a way many thought impossible (which is why the Knicks no longer accept his calls). In fact, if almost any other GM had drafted a virtually unknown Bruno Caboclo, the laughter would still be audible 8 weeks after draft night. Yet somehow, the pick has been legitimized by the Raptors decision to keep him in the US and put him on the roster immediately.
As a Grizzlies fan, I hate playing the Raptors for one reason, and it rhymes with Dial Cowry. Not to take anything away from Lowry, who has developed into a very good NBA point guard, but he brings something extra to the table any time he gets to match up with the Grizzlies and Mike Conley. After snapping the Grizzlies 6-game winning streak against Toronto in March 2012 (the Jerryd Bayless game, by the way), the Raptors and Grizzlies have split the last 4 games.
The Grizzlies draw the Raptors twice, of course, the first on Wednesday, November 19th at Toronto. The game is sandwiched between a home game against Houston and a home game against the Celtics, which should work to the Grizzlies advantage. Often we catch Toronto in the middle of an extended northern road swing. The second match up will be at FedExForum on Wednesday, January 21st. This game is in the middle of an lengthy home-stand that includes games on Monday and Friday.
As always, the Grizzlies fortunes against the Raptors will turn largely on two important match ups. First, Mike Conley has to take a sense of personal pride in shutting down (or keeping up with) Kyle Lowry. Second, the Grizzlies wing defenders (primarily TA, I suspect) have to be engaged in slowing down DeRozan. One wildcard to keep an eye on – James Johnson may be extremely motivated to show Dave Joerger what he can do. Grizzlies fans should hope so, because when Dr. JJ forces things, the other team tends to benefit.
As I happily put my trust in the good guys, I expect the Grizzlies to take the season series, 2-0.
Antonia Bufalino: The Toronto Raptors have become an interesting enemy of the Grizzlies after their showcase of brute athleticism and scoring ability last year. With Memphis Grizzlies’ fan still frowning from the sour taste of lasts season’s games, the truth remains how this is not the team to sleep on. Why not? We can begin before the beginning of last year’s season- preseason. For the die-hard fans that watch every preseason game, this was one where many fans quietly chanted to themselves, “It’s only preseason,” for a few hours. However, for the Raptors, it was not preseason. It was the NBA Finals, or at least, the game appeared that way after the Raptors left everything out on the floor and won by a massive landslide- a 36 point win.
Unfortunately, the games did not go much better during the season. In November and March, the Grizzlies fell to the Raptors, with both games being a loss by greater than 10 points. Even though one of the losses was during the “Memphis Grizzlies’ Injury Plaque” the Raptors were still able to stomp out two winnable victories. So, why do the Raptors keep winning?
One of the Grizzlies biggest problems is the inconsistency to close out quarters. Though they are one of the best teams to have in the last few minutes of the 4th quarter when the game is close, their inability to close out quarters early on and blow leads puts them in stressful situations. Against the Raptors, both of those weakness were shown. On March 14, the Grizzlies blew an opportunity to take a lead in the 4th quarter by missing shots and committing turn overs while the Raptors continued to play their game. With most cases, the losses of the Grizzlies wasn’t so much contributed on the team being extremely good, but the Grizzlies failing to be efficient and close out the remaining quarter.
For this season, when the Grizzlies face the Raptors, if they control the pace and play their style of ball, it will be a win. Even though the Raptors are beginning to be a team that could become a formidable enemy, as of the moment, each game is extremely winnable. The decision of who will win rests in whether or not the Grizzlies play with the same intensity all and every quarter. Every game we’ve played against the Raptors have been a game for the Grizzlies taking- they just have to take it!
When Do They Square Off?
11/19/14 — Air Canada Centre, Toronto, Ontario, Canada — 6:30 PM CST
1/21/15 — FedEx Forum, Memphis, TN — 7:00 PM CST
What Do Y’all Think?
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